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Only in Arkansas: Fourche Mountain salamander

Only in Arkansas: The Fourche Mountain salamander (Plethodon fourchensis) lives only in Arkansas. Thirty different species of salamanders are found in the state, occupying a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic habitats. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the enormous Ozark hellbender that can grow over a foot in length to the tiny Ozark zigzag salamander that has a bright red orange stripe down its back. While these extreme examples both live in the northern Ozark region of Arkansas, two endemic species are found in the Ouachita Mountain region, specifically in areas referenced by their names. 

Fourche Mountain salamanders belong to the group “plethodontids” which are the lungless salamanders. They lack both lungs and gills, and conduct respiration through their skin and the tissues lining their mouths. They must keep these surfaces moist in order to breathe, and so have to live in damp environments, such as beneath logs, in caves or in wet rock crevices. Another distinctive feature is the presence of a vertical slit between the nostril and upper lip, known as the "naso-labial groove". The groove is lined with glands, and enhances the animal's chemoreception. Studies have shown that individuals can distinguish each other by smell and defend their territory. 

Plethodontid salamanders are completely terrestrial and do not go through the tadpole stage that we normally associate with amphibians. Instead the larval stage is skipped and they undergo direct development, with the eggs hatching into miniature adults. Other oddities in this group of salamanders include dropping the tail as a predator defense mechanism. They are able to regenerate the tail and other extremities such as toes and feet. Some plethodontids curl up in a ball and roll downhill to escape predators. They have rough pads on the roof of their mouth referred to as “vomerine teeth” and capture small invertebrates such as worms, insects and spiders with a projectile tongue.

 Numerous legends have developed around the salamander over the centuries, many related to fire. This connection likely originates from the tendency of many salamanders to live inside rotting logs. When placed into a fire, the salamander would attempt to escape from the log, lending to the belief that salamanders were created from flames – a belief that gives this animal its name, from the Persian “sam” meaning “fire and “andarun” meaning “within.” Learn more about Arkansas endemics at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. Photograph by Michael Ray Spencer